Last week the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that it was allowing unlimited, nonregulated planting of Monsanto’s MON 87460 genetically modified corn trait, which was designed to be resistant to certain kinds of drought. This trait will be combined with other traits also approved on the same date, to provide corn that it both drought tolerant and resistant to the Roundup™ herbicide. According to the company’s press release, “Our drought system is designed to help farmers mitigate the risk of yield loss when experiencing drought stress, primarily in areas of annual drought stress,” said Hobart Beeghly, Monsanto’s U.S. product management lead. “This spring farmers in the Western Great Plains will have an opportunity to see how the system performs on their farm through on-farm trials.”
APHIS said that, “Based on the data submitted by Monsanto with its petition for deregulation, APHIS’ risk assessment and evaluation of scientific information, and review of the public comments received, APHIS has determined that the product is unlikely to present a plant pest risk and is therefore determining nonregulated status.”
However, according to Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “The company and the USDA have both admitted the crop will fare only modestly better than current conventional varieties under low- and moderate-level drought conditions. This means that this corn will be useful only for a fraction of corn acres – just 15 percent by USDA estimates.”
Furthermore, says UCS Senior Scientist, Doug Gurian-Sherman, “Monsanto’s new corn will not be a silver bullet for farmers suffering from the kind of severe drought facing the Southwest right now. … it’s unlikely this drought-resistant crop will actually save water as Monsanto would like everyone to believe. Classical crop breeding can produce drought-resistant crops that are cheaper and more effective than what Monsanto has come up with.”
UCS holds, that genetic engineering, is not a fruitful approach to the question of sustainable agriculture because, “sustainable agriculture solves problems by understanding and adjusting the elements of the system to achieve its goals.” In other words, work with what nature provides continuously and sustainably, right there on the farm, like sunlight, rain and natural sources of soil-building fertility.
Biotechnology, on the other hand, “is basically an industry that develops products, often expensive products, priced to cover the costs of research and development. In general, new products are of minor importance to sustainable agriculture. Moreover, such products may pose risks, some unique, to human health and the environment.
The APHIS assessment is focused on protecting plant health under the 1986 Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. Under this framework, responsibility for overseeing the impact of these new biotechnologies is divided between USDA(APHIS), FDA, and EPA.
But breaking the problem up into component parts such as plant pest risk, food safety and environmental pollution, loses sight the holistic aspect of the issue, allowing some of the key risks to modern agriculture, in areas like soil fertility, topsoil loss, and biodiversity to fall through the cracks.
Consider an issue like agricultural bio-diversity. According to Vandana Shiva, we humans have consumed, over our history, some 80,000 different species of plants. Today, the vast majority of people are fed by only 150 species, a mere eight of which are traded globally. In her Manifesto on the Future of Seeds, Shiva states, “The spread of modern, commercial agriculture has been identified as the chief contemporary cause of the loss of genetic diversity, and the replacement of local varieties as the most important cause of genetic erosion.”
And while this might seem like an efficiency expert’s dream come true, a single Midwestern state, for example, planted entirely with a single crop, don’t forget the old adage of putting all of one’s eggs in a single basket. Consider what one bad season, or the unexpected arrival of an insect pest or a pathogen drawn to such monolithic abundance, could do to the entire global food supply. It could be argued that, even as a new era of unpredictability of precipitation and weather and pest migration is arriving under the influence of excessive atmospheric carbon, the inherent resilience of biodiversity is needed more than ever, just at the time that it is being purposefully eradicated.
Yet it is clearly the intention of companies like Monsanto, who have patented these genes, to manage the global food supply based on an industrial age model, using no more than a handful of crops that they intend to control.
Geneticist, Jack Harlan, in his book Crops and Man, (cited in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle) wrote of these vanishing varieties, “These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine…The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner.”
How is it that in the European Union, until recently, GMOs were banned entirely, and even now there is a zero tolerance policy against contamination (though that is presently under attack), while officials here in the US see no problem at all with allowing it without any form of regulation and without any labeling requirement?
That is a subject too big for today’s post to try to answer. Suffice it to say that one of the two governments is sensibly using the precautionary principle, understanding that it will be very difficult to put this genie back in the bottle should something go wrong, while the other might be giving a little too much sway to the influence of lobbyists.
[Image credit: takomabibelot:Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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